Ranking the NFC South position groups rolls on, this time diving into the safety rankings around the division. The Bucs are playing catch-up in a division loaded with quality safety play, hoping that the addition of Antoine Winfield and the possible return of Justin Evans can improve the worst unit on their defense in 2019.
Here’s the other rankings of the divisional position groups that have been completed so far:
Antoine Winfield Jordan Whitehead Mike Edwards Justin Evans Andrew Adams D’Cota Dixon
The Bucs have easily the worst safety group in the division, but I still think the arrow is pointing up. Let down by their safety play much of last season, the drafting of Antoine Winfield should give the Bucs a future stud at one of their safety spots, while the other remains in question.
If Justin Evans can return to the field, the Bucs would have an exciting, ball-hawking duo in their defensive backfield, but that seems like a big “if” at this point in Evans career. He’s missed the past season-and-a-half due to injuries, and there hasn’t been a single encouraging report on his health in the past year.
That means the Bucs will likely choose between the limited Jordan Whitehead and second-year safety Mike Edwards, who struggled last season but could improve with more time around the line of scrimmage. It’s a fine top three safeties, but in a division with strong competition, the Bucs safeties have a long way to go to move up the rankings.
3. Carolina Panthers
Tre Boston Juston Burris Jeremy Chinn Kenny Robinson
Tre Boston is one of the best free safeties in the league, finally getting rewarded for his excellent work when Carolina locked him up with a big contract this offseason. He’s a ballhawk with range and instincts, rarely surrendering big plays while making plenty himself.
Outside of Boston, question marks exist everywhere for Carolina. Jeremy Chinn is an extremely exciting prospect who could fit perfectly as a strong safety/matchup man coverage guy alongside Boston. Kenny Robinson is an interesting day three prospect too, as his ball skills could earn him some playing time despite his lack of high-end athletic ability.
If the rookies aren’t ready, Juston Burris is a versatile defender who played his best football last season for Cleveland. He’s never been a full-time starter, but the former fourth round pick is still only 26 and picked off two passes last year on 409 snaps.
I think the arrow is pointing up for the Panthers safety room, but it might take a year or two for the rookies to catch up. Third in the division seems like a fair place for them right now, with the hope that next year they’ll be in position to contend for the top spot.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Keanu Neal Ricardo Allen Damontae Kazee Jaylinn Hawkins
The Falcons could have one of the best safety rooms in the NFL, but Keanu Neal’s recent injury history has left his ability to continue his hot start as a pro in doubt. Neal has played in just four of the teams last 32 regular seasons games after suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2018 and 2019. This is a huge season to determine his career direction heading into a contract year.
In the meantime, Ricardo Allen has quietly put together an excellent career in Atlanta, even if the 2019 season had more bumps for him than you typically see. Damontae Kazee is one of the best third safeties in the NFL, with the versatility to play in the slot, as a deep cover man or even in the box.
If Neal can return to his rookie form, Atlanta could have the best safety unit in the South this season. They can’t say that about many of their other position groups, so safeties could be a real strength of the team.
1. New Orleans Saints
Marcus Williams Malcolm Jenkins Chauncey Gardner-Johnson D.J. Swearinger
The Saints have an elite safety room, sporting every type of safety and a wide range of playmakers. Marcus Williams is an underrated ball hawk with outstanding range as a deep cover man, while Malcolm Jenkins will be a big upgrade over Von Bell around the line of scrimmage for the Saints.
Perhaps the most exciting of the group is Gardner-Johnson, who got off to a strong start as a rookie playing in the slot, the box and as a true free safety. His versatility could be a huge weapon for the Saints when it comes to solving mismatch problems like O.J. Howard or Rob Gronkowski.
Also, D.J. Swearinger is on the Saints? I didn’t even know he was still in the league. He’s still only 28 years old, and at the least he’s an absolute enforcer on special teams. Unbelievable depth in the Saints safety room. One of the best in the league.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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